DONEGAL COUNTY Council's plan to draw up a list of small builders and guarantee them planning permission for up to two "one-off" houses a year is being challenged by Minister for the Environment John Gormley.
"The Minister's position is that compilation by the councillors of an annual register of small builders who will then be permitted to build two houses each per year is not appropriate for inclusion in a land-use plan," a spokesman said.
"It is akin to business support - and preferred business support at that - which may be open to legal challenge as it confers preferred development rights on local builders to the exclusion of others from outside the locality.
"This is the fourth case where [Mr Gormley] may have no option but to intervene because a council is not adhering to planning legislation and policy. He believes it highlights an issue where councillors act . . . against the interests of the wider community."
The spokesman said the council's Small Builders Policy - believed to be the first of its kind in Ireland - raised "potential ethics, probity, fairness and competition issues" and also amounted to an abuse of the county development plan.
The Department of the Environment wrote to Donegal County Council last June outlining its "serious concerns" about certain aspects of the then proposed draft variation of the county plan.
"The Minister continues to have serious concerns about the potential planning implications of the proposal, but requires further information about the plan in terms of the number of units/builders etc, in order to determine whether he will intervene," the spokesman said.
Last Friday, Dave Walsh, principal officer in charge of spatial policy, wrote to Donegal county manager Michael McLoone requesting the council to outline clearly how the small builders policy would operate.
He asked on what objective criteria were the applicants for inclusion on the register to be assessed: who could qualify as a builder for the purposes of the register; who would adjudicate on applicants; and what "preferential treatment" they would receive.
Mr Walsh also asked what safeguards would be put in place "to ensure that . . .the proposed system fully accords with the local government ethics framework".
Mr Walsh wrote: "The introduction of this policy could also have significant adverse planning implications for the council . . . [G]iven the lack of detail contained in the proposed variation . . . it is not possible to fully quantify and adequately assess the full planning implications."
The letter "strongly advised" the council to seek legal advice on whether the plan was "well-founded, proportionate and robust to potential legal challenge" and also whether it was valid, given that no environmental assessment was carried out.
"I would appreciate if you would revert to the department with the additional information . . . so that we can assess whether further action is warranted by the department in this matter," Mr Walsh's letter concluded.
The Irish Times